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California Burning

An epic gusher, There Will Be Blood strikes oil, and then some.



There Will Be Blood recounts the tale of a ferociously successful wildcat oil driller named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is introduced as a solitary miner in 1898 and is seen traveling the West with a small boy (Dillon Freasier), whom he introduces as his partner and son. Attempting to convince squabbling landowners to lease their property for oil exploration, Plainview presents himself as a progressive businessman who jovially proposes to improve — as well as enrich — the entire community.

The narrative begins when a mysterious youth named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) appears out of the night to tip Daniel off to an unexploited oil field on his family's land back in the hills. He then disappears from the movie — or rather, he reappears in those hills as his twin brother Eli (also Dano), a precocious, charismatic faith healer "sucking out" arthritis from an old lady's arm, the way Daniel sucks black gold out of the earth.

Plainview also turns out to have a brother (played by Kevin O'Connor as Day-Lewis' weaker double), whose surprise appearance allows the oilman to elaborate on his harsh philosophy of life. Enunciating each line with the certainty of someone engraving his words in stone, Day-Lewis projects a fearsome intensity comparable to his performance in Gangs of New York.

The past few months have hardly lacked for audacious exercises in cinematic boldness — The Assassination of Jesse James, Southland Tales, and I'm Not There, to name three excellent examples — but as bizarre as it often is, There Will Be Blood is the one that packs the strongest movie-movie wallop. This is truly a work of symphonic aspirations and masterful execution. Director Paul Thomas Anderson's (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) superb filmmaking is complemented throughout by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's excellent score — at once modernist and rhapsodic, full of discordant excitements, outer-space siren trills, and the rumble of distant thunder.

And there's hardly a dull moment. Digs collapse, gushers burst into flame, God metes out punishment, and so does man. Revelations overturn the narrative: The last 20 minutes are as shocking in their way as the plague that rains from the sky in Magnolia's finale. By the time the closing words "There Will Be Blood" appear (with a burst of Brahms), inscribed in heavy gothic letters on the screen, Anderson's movie has come to seem an Old Testament story of cosmic comeuppance and filicidal madness — American history glimpsed through the smoke and fire that the lightning left behind.

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